If we’ve learned anything over the years from movies about journalists, reporters and TV newspeople, it’s that theirs is a world of ethical and psychological pitfalls. One day, you’re an upstanding citizen doing your job, investigating and helping keep the public apprised of current events, and then, suddenly you’re Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (1951), deliberately manipulating your story to create and prolong the media circus surrounding it. Or you’re Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote (2005), befriending a convicted murderer but privately rooting for his execution. Or you’re Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), ingesting so many intoxicants that you miss the story entirely. Or you’re Hayden Christensen in Shattered Glass (2003) and just flat out making shit up.
Or you could be Jake Gyllenhaal on either side of this week’s title card match: Becoming so obsessed with a baffling serial killer case that it completely consumes your life in Zodiac (2007), or becoming so focused on developing and expanding your new crime scene video footage business that your moral compass goes out the window in the new release Nightcrawler.
Which of these two dark and disturbing films about the press will wind up pressed to the Smackdown mat? Highlight reel rolling in 3… 2…
In Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, an emaciated, wide-eyed Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom, an economic and social misfit on the outskirts of Los Angeles, who has filled the hole where his soul ought to be with a pile of “start your own business” motivational seminar-speak. None of this seems to have been much to his benefit, but after one fateful encounter with Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) and his team of crime scene videographers, Lou realizes he has found his calling.
He impulsively buys a camcorder and police scanner, hires an eager homeless guy (Riz Ahmed) as his “intern” and starts cruising for carnage. With his willingness to cross boundaries that his competitors shy away from, Lou and his gruesome material quickly grab the eye of Nina (a welcome return for Rene Russo, Gilroy’s wife), the sultry station editor for a local morning news show that specializes in grisly stories.
Nina, in turn, captures Lou’s eye, and he decides to use his leverage to his advantage with both their business and social relationships, which is to say that as his business flourishes, so too does Lou’s capacity for Machiavellian creepiness. And hey, speaking of creepiness…
The Defending Champion
Zodiac tells the true story of how, in the summer of 1969, a serial killer terrorizes San Francisco with three brutal, seemingly random killings in the space of a few months, and then sends proud, taunting, encoded letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, identifying himself as the Zodiac for no discernible reason beyond how bad-ass it sounds.
The Zodiac Killer case piques the curiosity of young, timid Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Gyllenhaal), leading him to a partnership and friendship with maverick crime reporter Paul Avery (the invaluable Robert Downey, Jr.). Clues pile up, suspects come and go, leads abound, but nothing adds up. Months pass and interest in the case wanes for everyone except Graysmith and lead detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who form an unusual bond after the vice-ridden Avery completely burns out and Toschi’s partner (Anthony Edwards) changes departments.
After a prime suspect slips through their grasp, Graysmith’s interest in the case becomes a full-blown obsession that he channels into a book, costing him his job, his second wife (an endearingly bookish Chloe Sevigny), and time with his children. But, hey, at least the book turned out pretty well
Nightcrawler wears its indictment of the public and its morbid, invasive curiosity right on its sleeve: Yes, Lou Bloom is a sociopathic cretin, but he’s a successful sociopathic cretin because of us. Zodiac doesn’t quite point the finger so directly, making a case for the value of the press in raising awareness of the killer and his crime spree, but underneath it all lies the compelling and uncomfortable question: Would there even be a crime spree if the publicity-hungry killer couldn’t rely on the media to make him a celebrity? The film doesn’t exactly blame the community for so breathlessly following the story; the Zodiac genuinely is cause for their alarm. But at the same time, it also becomes something akin to water cooler TV, with readers eagerly awaiting each next episode and tensely anticipating the inevitable unmasking of the killer (an anticipation that will never be fully satisfied). So we may not be the true villains of Zodiac, but one could argue that our response to stories like the Zodiac helped create the ugly world of Nightcrawler.
Beyond those thematic connections, the films share an enormous ace in the hole in Gyllenhaal, who is steadily proving to be one of the most versatile of movie stars, with an incredibly diverse taste in projects and roles, ranging from the gay cowboy of Brokeback Mountain (netting him his first Oscar nomination) to the dour, moody detective of Prisoners, to the likable action hero of Source Code, to his nearly polar opposite roles in these two films. He begins Zodiac as a nearly invisible entity, so lacking in basic social skills that his colleagues nickname him Retard, and part of the fun of the film is watching his fascination with the case gradually bring out the best and worst of him, transforming him into a confident investigator with encyclopedic knowledge of the various crimes, but also a bit of an obsessive loon.
Whereas, in Nightcrawler, his character, seemingly the unholy result of an attempt to create the ultimate capitalist robot, stays pretty consistent throughout, not so much evolving as upgrading itself. Love or hate this off-kilter, polarizing performance, it’s hard to look away from it, even when he’s uttering lines as seemingly mundane as “Thank you for taking the time to discuss what you do,” in a way that makes it overly clear that there’s just something not… quite… right about the guy, imbuing every scene with unnerving tension.
And speaking of tension, both films are absolute master classes in it. No one at this point doubts David Fincher’s ability to generate palpable suspense (even in a disappointment like Gone Girl), but Zodiac is arguably his finest work, one that grabs us in its grisly opening scene and never loosens its grip for its long running time, even though it’s based on a true story with a known outcome, and even though much of it consists simply of people talking. James Vanderbilt’s brilliant script hews as closely to the actual events as one could hope, which requires throwing countless names, dates and places at us in rapid-fire succession, leaping back and forth between multiple plot strands, and refusing to reshape the unwieldy, epic story into a more digestible package; Fincher has the good sense to stay out of its way and simply trust the audience to keep up. He treads into more conventional thriller territory only in a brief, bravura sequence involving Gyllenhaal’s arguably unwise nighttime visit to a reclusive film collector, played with consummate creepiness by Charles Fleischer.
Comparably impressive, though, is Dan Gilroy’s double-duty on Nightcrawler, easily one of the most audacious writing-directing debuts in recent memory. Gilroy’s previous screenwriting credits have been largely unimpressive, from the lamentable Freejack (1992) to the more recent Bourne Legacy, in collaboration with his higher-profile brother Tony, whose Michael Clayton (2007) was an equally audacious writing-directing debut, so apparently their sibling rivalry is our gain. The script is a potent mix of ruthless violence and biting satirical wit, miraculously finding room for some of the year’s funniest dialogue exchanges (particularly the brutal negotiation sessions Gyllenhaal holds with his “romantic” interest Russo and his business partner Ahmed), and a terrifically exciting car chase sequence with a jaw-dropping denouement, all gorgeously visualized by the great Robert Elswit, longtime P.T. Anderson collaborator. Whatever Gilroy has been doing all these years to develop his directing chops, it’s worked wonders.
Such an unfair fight, pitting an outstanding newcomer against a Hall of Famer! The riveting and savagely funny Nightcrawler will surely make my best-of list at year’s end, but Zodiac remains one of the few genuine masterpieces of the past decade, firing on all cylinders as a period true crime story, a fascinating (if infuriating) mystery, a newspaper drama, and a character study. Both prove to be excellent showcases for Jake Gyllenhaal’s powerful screen presence and versatility. You should see both of these terrific films, but if your life is such that you can only see one of them, a) I’m pretty sure you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, but b) See our winner, Zodiac.